Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson once wanted to be a reporter. “I wanted to be a journalist for a long time, but when I got to college, I realized it was not what I imagined,” she said in an artview interview. “I wanted to inject my opinions in the articles and, worse, I wanted the facts to fit my ideas. Journalism is hard. I realized I was better cut out for fiction.”
Wilson was thus well qualified to write The Story, which is loosely based on the sins of Janet Cooke. Cooke nearly won a Pulitzer Prize with her wholly invented news story about “Jimmy,” an eight-year-old heroin addict. Wilson understood her temptation: shoehorning facts to fit ideas is the provenance of fiction writers, who understand what they are doing, and of schizophrenics and politicians, who do not. When reporters try to pass lies off as truth, bad things happen, as Cooke and serial liars Jayson Blair and James Frey have shown. The subject of this grim, complex, cynical tale is lying. The lying begins almost at the outset, when Yvonne (Chinasa Ogbuagu) – black, beautiful, incredibly credentialed and a new reporter on an unnamed paper in an unnamed city – and her lover Jeff (Jason Stiles) – white, rich, and invested with an unspecified editorial position – conspire to hide their relationship from the rest of the staff. It does not end until the brutal and shocking denouement, in which integrity and dignity lies on the ground like the ashes of a burned-out home.
The story here is about the slaying of a wealthy, idealistic young man (Stiles again) who has elected to teach school in the most dangerous part of the city. He and his pregnant wife (Mary C. Davis) are driving through this X-treme ghetto to meet his parents at a local bistro in order to convince them of the safety of his job choice – another lie, though done with noble purpose. Sudden gunfire shatters the windshield, and he collapses. A man is dead, a nascent family shattered – and the characters immediately scramble to see how it will affect their lives. Yvonne wants to solve the crime and break the story to get her out of the paper’s Outlook section – her own professional ghetto, as she sees it. Pat (Jewell Robinson), Outlook’s editor and the only African-American editor on the paper, is agonized by the thought that the killing will result in pictures of “another brother doing the perp walk” – the very image she sought to erase during her ten years creating and editing Outlook. Pat’s protégé, Neil (KenYatta Rogers), whose own notion of breaking the story involves pinning the blame on the dead man’s widow, sees Yvonne as a rival and a threat – the worst kind of rival, one who succeeds by sycophancy to the white culture. When a remarkable young girl (Mildred Langford) tells Yvonne an astonishing story about the killing, it inflames ambitions, brings forth base instincts, and creates a moral bloodbath too sad to recount here.
These characters want the facts to fit into their preconceived worldviews, and they lie as casually as they brush their teeth to make it so. Wilson employs an incredibly complex device to give transparency to their lies: she has her characters explain what they are doing (Yvonne to her lover; Neil to his mentor) while they are doing it. This method permits us to see the distance between their stories and the actual, objective truth. Wilson uses this technique in several different ways. In the play’s most effective scene, Neil and Yvonne, ostensibly meeting to work together on the story but secretly plotting to steal information from each other, first go through their meeting as they’ve assured their partners it would proceed, and then go through it as it actually took place. The differences are disastrous – and wonderfully comic.
It was director David Charles Goyette’s audacious choice to stage this immensely challenging play in the most difficult way conceivable – in the round, on a bare stage. Unprotected by furniture, with no special effects to amplify their art, the actors were supplemented only by Chas March’s superb sound design. I cannot recall seeing a company which has taken this much on for itself.
I am sorry to say that at the early production I saw, not all the actors had fully come to terms with their characters. Some had line problems; some seemed unable to control their hand movements. These difficulties diminished in the second Act. Davis’ widow sounded a single note of hysteria throughout her brief appearances. I assume that this was a director’s decision; I found it wearying. Two actors who were outstanding from the get-go were Rogers as the ambitious protégé Neil and Langford as the mischievous informant. Rogers utterly sold his character as a black Sammy Glick, managing to merge self-confidence and self-righteousness. While he was doing so, however, we could always see the doubt and fear lurking just below the surface. Langford, an adult actor, was perfectly convincing as a preternaturally bright teenager. In particular, her movement and body language was spot-on in capturing that difficult age. The ability to play that young should stand Langford in good stead, since it is hard to find teenage actors who can sustain important parts. Three ensemble actors – Maya Lynne Robinson, Jessica Frances Dukes, and MaConnia Chesser – did excellent work in assuming multiple roles, sometimes changing character before our eyes. Consistent with Goyette’s terrific pacing, they burst in and out of scenes in whatever characters they were inhabiting with great precision and energy.
This is a beautifully-written, wise, provocative show and Goyette’s high-risk, high-octane staging will pay off soon. Notwithstanding the easily correctable defects I saw on press night, I have no hesitancy in recommending it to you.